Pac-12 South hopefuls kick things off when Sun Devils, Trojans clash in the Coliseum
Pac-12 football is back! The USC Trojans are revved up to begin their season against the Arizona State Sun Devils. Since head coach Herm Edwards took over at Arizona State, Clay Helton's Trojans are 1-1 with both games decided by a combined eight points.
This game could go a long way towards deciding the eventual winner of the Pac-12 South, especially given the condensed six-game schedule. Here's what to watch for when the teams kick things off early (9 a.m. local time) out in Los Angeles on Saturday.
Arizona State at No. 20 USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -7.5
When Arizona State Has the Ball
Quarterback Jayden Daniels is a talented dual-threat quarterback, who impressed as a freshman last season. He posted a tidy 17:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio while completing 61 percent of his passes and throwing for nearly 3,000 yards. He also added 355 yards and three scores on the ground.
Daniels will give USC's new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando headaches if his charges aren't up-to-speed on their assignments. Orlando likes to employ a 3-4 alignment with quarters coverage. This, of course, assumes that he doesn't try to overload the Trojans with multiple schemes and other looks outside of that 3-4. Being diverse can be a good thing, but have to be on guard against confusion produced as a result of trying to do too much.
The question for Daniels is who will make plays for him now that running back Eno Benjamin and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk are in the NFL. Senior wide receiver Frank Darby (31 rec., 616 yds., 8 TDs in 2019) is back but otherwise, Daniels is surrounded by unproven options. Trying to fill Benjamin's big shoes will be junior college transfer Rachaad White or highly regarded freshman Chip Trayanum. The offensive line returns just one starter (LG Dohnavon West) but head coach Herm Edwards signed a pair of graduate transfers in Kellen Diesch (Texas A&M) and Henry Hattis (Stanford) to bolster the group. The Sun Devils also will be working with a new offensive coordinator as Zak Hill comes to Tempe after serving in the same role at Boise State the last four seasons.
For USC, one of the keys on Saturday will be to generate pressure from up front. Zone coverage (or any coverage, really) will fail to hold up over the course of 60 minutes if the front seven can't find a way to be disruptive and make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. Marlon Tuipulotu and Connor Murphy will need to find a way to take on the double-teams and either beat them or be enough of a nuisance to free up someone else to make a play.
The Trojans' strength on defense should be their secondary. Talented and deep, these defensive backs will be tested, starting Saturday. Chris Steele, Olaijah Griffin, Isaiah Pola-Mao, and Talanoa Hufanga figure to lead the way on the back end.
When USC Has the Ball
This is an embarrassment of riches for head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. It all starts with sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis. The Pac-12's Freshman Offensive Player of the Year, his emergence resulted in former starter JT Daniels transferring to Georgia.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Slovis has an envious assortment of targets to throw to. Whether it's wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Drake London, Kyle Ford, Bru McCoy, or tight end Eric Krommenhoek, Slovis should have little trouble finding someone open in Harrell's Air Raid system.
But Harrell knows full well he can't throw the ball on every play, so some help from the ground game will be needed. The Trojans don't lack for options there either with Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Kenan Christon, and Markese Stepp all in the mix. Each back has a different style, ranging from burner (Christon) to bowling ball (Stepp) and workhorse (Malepeai). Harrell could choose to just ride the hot hand for a given game or he could make a concerted effort to get every ball carrier involved.
Up front, USC has a good mix of upperclassmen and freshmen that should offer plenty of depth along the offensive line. It's just a matter of finding the right combination and weathering any injuries that happen.
On the other side, Arizona State has a fair amount of talent and depth on defense but it must navigate a scheme change under new co-coordinators Marvin Lewis (former Cincinnati Bengals head coach) and Antonio Pierce. The Sun Devils are shifting from a 3-3-5 to a pro-style 4-3 and have the pieces on each level to produce a formidable unit. The players to watch on this side of the ball are tackle Jermayne Lole, linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler, and defensive backs Aashari Croswell and Jack Jones.
USC managed to snag a 31-26 victory in Tempe last year after losing to Arizona State in the Coliseum the season before. The most recent meeting featured nearly 890 yards of offense and it stands to reason that both defenses may struggle to find their footing given the unique offseason and rules governing practice during the pandemic. So don't be surprised if Saturday's game features plenty of offensive fireworks.
The Sun Devils are going to have to get after Kedon Slovis and put him under pressure or the Trojans' wide receivers will feast. It's not a knock on the talent, it's that no defense is meant to guard this many super-talented pass catchers for an extended duration. USC's defense faces a similar challenge, but Arizona State doesn't have near the depth when it comes to the skill positions.
The Trojans will still need to run the ball effectively or the Sun Devils and other teams will focus on flooding coverage and bringing the heat to make things harder on Slovis. USC offensive line coach Tim Drevno is said to be more in-tune with Harrell entering this season after finishing 115th nationally in rushing offense in 2019. The more balance this offense can offer, the more dangerous the Trojans will be.
This game is likely going to come down to the final possession or two. That was the case last season when Christian Rector intercepted Joey Yellen's (started in place of injured Jayden Daniels) pass as Arizona State was driving. The previous meeting also came down to the very end. Expect Saturday's game to follow the same path. Herm Edwards knows what he's doing with the Sun Devils and the Trojans are excited about where they sit before the season begins. We'll know soon enough how this plays out.
Prediction: USC 38, Arizona State 36
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.